25 Years Later: Lessons from the Organizers of Justice for Janitors

On June 15, 1990, the Los Angeles Police Department viciously attacked immigrant janitors who were striking for the right to organize in Century City, Los Angeles. In a story that is now all too familiar, the police claimed they were defending themselves. Only later, when TV news footage exposed the police clubbing non-violent strikers, was the self-defense claim discredited. Two women miscarried, dozens were hospitalized, and 60 strikers and supporters were jailed.


After the violence, the workers regrouped in a nearby park where one of the strikers said, “What they did to us today in front of the TV cameras, is the way the police treat us every day.” Another woman striker told a reporter, “I wasn’t robbing a bank or selling drugs, I’m simply asking for an increase in pay but the police beat us as if we were garbage.”


However, the police assault backfired, and the response of the campaign organizers and activists is still instructive today. Far from being beaten into submission, the strikers met the next day and voted unanimously to return to the scene of the violence on the following day.

Over the next weeks, public outrage at the police helped galvanize support for the strikers. Janitors in Century City won their union, doubling their pay and benefits. Century City also proved a tipping point for the Justice for Janitors campaign. Many in the labor movement had argued that janitors were impossible to organize—they were undocumented, part-time, subcontracted, workers of color—but the campaign demonstrated clearly that not only could these workers organize, they could win.

Emboldened by success in Century City, Janitors in Washington, D.C. blocked the 14th Street Bridge with school buses, effectively shutting down the nation capital’s rush hour commute.

bridgeAt the University of Miami, Janitors fasted for weeks as part of their lengthy and winning strike. Workers in wheel chairs, weakened by the fast, surrounded the university’s president, Donna Shalala and chanted in Spanish, “Union or death!” In Houston, 5,000 Janitors won a first-time union contract in a “right-to-work” state, despite the fact that bail was set at more than $20 million for people arrested for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the city. Workers in cities across the nation went on strike in support of the Houston Janitors, and allies in Europe occupied buildings. Finally, pension fund trustees in charge of $1 trillion in workers’ pension fund capital adopted “responsible contractor” procedures—committing to invest only in office buildings where janitors were treated fairly.

The Justice for Janitors campaign succeeded because it relentlessly went after the building owners and financiers at the top of the real estate industry—the people who truly had power over the janitors’ livelihood—not the cleaning companies who were powerless subcontractors. The campaign also exposed an economy that was increasingly using sub-contracting and other schemes to separate and isolate workers from the corporations and companies that were actually in control of their wages, benefits and overall working conditions.

Justice for Janitors became much more than a “union organizing campaign,” it grew into a movement. Its influence and impact extended far beyond the people directly involved in the campaign’s actions. Its success was rooted in its ability to pit the needs of an entire community against the wealth of the real estate industry. The movement penetrated pop culture with Adrian Brody starring in Bread and Roses, a movie based on the Century City Strike. The game show Jeopardy asked contestants, “What is Justice for Janitors?” The campaign was also part of the back-story of the assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. The Justice for Janitors movement became a living example of what was possible—even against the greatest odds.

Hundreds of articles and dissertations have now been written about the keys to the success of the campaign. Some claim that it succeeded through militant direct action, strikes, and disruption rooted in the struggles of Central America. Others state it was through grounding organizing in immigrant communities. Still others say it was due to integrating existing union membership with non-union workers. Additionally, some view global solidarity, corporate leverage, and “top-down” tactics as the basis of the campaign’s success.

As two of the original organizers of Justice for Janitors—with 25 years of distance from the Century City Strike—the key lesson for us is that there is no silver bullet; there isn’t one thing, one strategy, one action, or one tactic that magically beats billionaires or creates the space for a movement to develop.

Yet Justice for Janitors unquestionably provides critical lessons for future organizing: As Wall Street and the finance industry increasingly take control over the global economy, we have to look up the economic food chain and target the real culprits. We have to bring as many stakeholders to the fight as possible, and creatively and aggressively organize to disrupt business as usual for those in control—that can mean strikes, civil disobedience, engaging shareholders, or directly challenging other business, social, and political interests and their exploitative practices and schemes.

Workers’ lives have been disrupted enough. It’s time to turn the tables.



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Workers and Georgetown Students Stand Up to Aramark

At Georgetown University this year, students became aware of stark differences in treatment between Aramark’s Georgetown and American University food services employees. At American, food service workers received more health care coverage while paying nearly half of what Aramark employees at Georgetown paid for health care.

These disparities were unacceptable. Colleges are supposed to instill values in their students that make for a just society, and those values must be reflected in the institutions’ decisions to protect or neglect basic fairness. Georgetown and other institutions of higher education must therefore support workers’ rights. But since our current capitalist system places profit above anything else, Aramark and other large corporations will continue to treat workers with minimal respect and pay them as little as possible until people speak up and demand better.

Students at Georgetown chose to speak up. As part of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), we responded to these working conditions by launching an Aramark campaign. The end goal? To improve the working conditions in the campus dining hall and to organize the food court and on-campus hotel workers (all of whom work for Aramark) so that they had the opportunity to join the union, UNITE HERE Local 23. The workers demanded consistent 40-hour workweeks; raises of $0.75 per year to the hourly wage; more protections for immigrant workers; affordable health care; and for language of dignity and respect to be used in grievance processes, because too many workers experienced disrespect, such as racial discrimination and verbal abuse, and lacked a process to address their treatment.

Colleges are supposed to instill values in their students that make for a just society, and those values must be reflected in the institutions’ decisions

Our first action occurred in December when the GSC hosted a holiday party for food court workers.  There, we collected addresses under the guise of a holiday raffle in anticipation of future house visits to convince them to join the union. Until a majority of the workers had agreed to join the union, this entire process had to be kept secret from Georgetown administrators and Aramark supervisors, so as not to put workers’ jobs in jeopardy. To boost student support for workers and put pressure on the university, we circulated a sign-on petition for students, faculty, and other community members which outlined the workers’ demands. After 3 weeks, we had collected over 2,000 signatures, or one-quarter of the undergraduate population.

Momentum for the campaign increased in February, when GSC organized a rally of more than 100 students to deliver the signed petition to Aramark’s management office in the food court, known as Hoya Court. Students and workers also delivered union cards signed by workers in Hoya Court and Einstein Brothers Bagels demonstrating their desire to organize under UNITE HERE. Students and workers in attendance marched to Hoya Court to show their commitment to ensuring Aramark gives the workers the dignity and respect they deserve.

Next, we shifted our focus to the workers at the Georgetown Hotel, which is also run by Aramark. Collecting signed union cards from hotel employees was an arduous task, made worse by the managers’ attempts to obstruct organizing. According to workers, Aramark managers had held captive audience meetings to intimidate and dissuade them from joining the union. Upon hearing these allegations, a group of students took to the hotel’s front desk and demanded that the supervisors respect the workers’ right to a fair organizing process. Eventually, after countless hours of students standing outside of the hotel’s back entrances and going to workers’ homes, a majority of hotel workers signed union cards with UNITE HERE.

Ultimately, the workers won almost all of their demands. Among the gains: workers in the dining hall won an increase in the minimum wage by $2.00 over the next 4 years; broader health care coverage with lower premiums; greater protection for immigrant workers; a sustainability committee that oversees the quality of food and how it is disposed; paid training for all cooks; and life insurance and a scholarship fund. The food court and hotel workers were guaranteed a fair bargaining process as they too joined UNITE HERE. Seeing the workers’ reactions to the final contract was an incredible culmination of a year’s worth of organizing––high-fiving a joyous hotel housekeeper when he finally achieved what he had wanted for so long was a true moment of triumph.

Solidarity between students and workers is immensely powerful. One of the best ways to convince workers that they could safely join the union was showing them videos of students rallying on their behalf. The Georgetown administration, prodded by GSC’s student mobilization, issued a letter reiterating the protection of the workers’ right to a fair unionization process. This made an enormous difference in showing non-union workers that the university had their backs.

GSC’s guiding philosophy is to act in solidarity with the workers, according to their expressed needs. This campaign demonstrates that the best change comes when workers and allies organize and create a united front to sway powerful companies like Aramark. Without hearing the demands of the people, wealthy corporations and individuals will continue to dominate at the expense of human life and dignity. Tangible change can come from a small but committed group of people working to expose abuses and to transform the way we think about power.


Safety Net

10 Solutions to Fight Economic Inequality

With a majority of Americans now concerned about wealth and income inequality in our country, TalkPoverty is launching a new feature, “10 Solutions to Fight Economic Inequality.” We asked experts to use this list by economist Tim Smeeding as a sample and to offer their ideas on how to dramatically reduce poverty and inequality in America. We hope you will use these lists as a resource to educate yourself and others, and that you will return here in the weeks and months ahead as we update this post with more lists from more contributors. As always, we welcome your ideas in the comments below. Anything particularly resonate? Anything missing?

Thanks for reading and sharing.

Jared Bernstein’s Top 10 to Address Economic Inequality

Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas: Top 10 Policy Solutions for Tackling Income Inequality and Reducing Poverty in America

Olivia Golden: Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

Kali Grant and Indivar Dutta-Gupta: Ten Ways to Fight Income Inequality

Erica Williams: What States Can Do to Address Inequality

Valerie Wilson: Top 10 Ways to Address Income Inequality

Jared Bernstein’s Top 10 to Address Economic Inequality

(Author’s note: many of these ideas fall under the heading of achieving full-employment in the job market, such that the matchup between the number of jobs and job-seekers is very tight. This is an essential intervention for both real wage stagnation and inequality.)

  1. If the private market fails to provide enough jobs to achieve full employment, the government must become the employer of last resort.
  2. When growth is below capacity and the job market is slack, apply fiscal and monetary policies aggressively to achieve full employment. Right now, this means not raising interest rates pre-emptively at the Fed and investing in public infrastructure.
  3. Take actions against countries that manage their currencies to subsidize their exports to us and tax our exports to them. Such actions can include revoking trade privileges, allowing for reciprocal currency interventions, and levying duties on subsidized goods.
  4. Support sectoral training, apprenticeships, and earn-while-you-learn programs.
  5. Implement universal pre-K, with subsidies that phase out as incomes rise.
  6. Raise the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020 and raise the overtime salary threshold (beneath which all workers get overtime pay) from $455/week to $970/week and index it to inflation.
  7. Provide better oversight of financial markets: mandate adequate capital buffers, enforce a strong Volcker Rule against proprietary trading in FDIC-insured banks, strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and encourage vigilant oversight of systemic risk in the banking system by the Federal Reserve.
  8. Level the playing field for union elections to bolster collective bargaining while avoiding, at the state-level, anti-union, so-called “right-to-work” laws.
  9. Maintain and strengthen safety net programs like the EITC and CTC, SNAP, and Medicaid.
  10. In order to generate needed revenue and boost tax fairness: reduce the rate at which high-income taxpayers can take tax deductions, impose a small tax of financial market transactions, increase IRS funding to close the “tax gap” (the difference between what’s owed and what’s paid), and repeal “step-up basis” (a tax break for wealthy inheritors).

Melissa Boteach and Rebecca Vallas: Top 10 Policy Solutions for Tackling Income Inequality and Reducing Poverty in America

  1. Create jobs by investing in infrastructure, developing renewable energy sources, renovating abandoned housing and significantly increasing affordable housing investments, and making other commonsense investments to revitalize neighborhoods.
  2. Improve job quality and strengthen families by raising the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020; ensuring pay equity by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act; strengthening collective bargaining; and enacting basic labor standards such as fairer overtime rules, paid sick and family leave, and right to request flexible and predictable schedules.
  3. Make the tax code work better for low-wage working families by making permanent the 2009 Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit improvements and expanding the EITC for childless workers and noncustodial parents.
  4. Invest in human capital by expanding access to high-quality and affordable childcare and early education; creating pathways to good jobs such as apprenticeships, national service opportunities, and a national subsidized jobs program; and implementing College for All to ensure that any student attending public college or university does not need to pay any tuition and fees during enrollment.
  5. Ensure that workers with disabilities have a fair shot at employment and economic security.
  6. Reform the criminal justice system to end mass incarceration and remove barriers to economic security and mobility for the one in three Americans with criminal records.
  7. Enact comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  8. Expand Medicaid and ensure that all Americans can access high-quality, affordable health coverage.
  9. Close tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and special interests and raise taxes on capital income.
  10. Protect and strengthen investments in basic living standards such as nutrition, health, and income insurance. This includes reforming counterproductive asset limits, and ensuring that programs such as unemployment insurance are there for more workers if they lose their job.

Olivia Golden: Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

  1. Make work pay for all workers, including childless adults, by raising the minimum wage and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.
  2. Ensure stability for workers and their families through access to paid leave and predictable job schedules. Pass federal bills such as the FAMILY Act, Schedules That Work Act, and Healthy Families Act that mirror strong state and local laws.
  3. Identify and tear down the systemic barriers that people face because of race, ethnicity, language, and immigration status, for example by making college prep courses equally available in high schools attended mostly by students of color or by providing work authorization and a path to citizenship for immigrant parents.
  4. Ensure that every working family can afford high-quality child care through significant investments in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start and Early Head Start, and preschool for all three- and four-year-olds.
  5. Give children and their parents a simultaneous boost through two-generational policies and investments, including home visiting, support for parental mental health, and support for parents’ career development coupled with high-quality early care and education for children.
  6. Help low-income youth and adults access employment and training opportunities that lead to economic success by fully funding the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as well as subsidized and summer jobs programs.
  7. Fully fund Pell Grants to help low-income students access higher education and develop the skills needed to compete in a competitive job market.
  8. Ensure that everyone, including low-wage working families and single adults, has access to basic health and nutrition by expanding Medicaid in every state and increasing SNAP benefits.
  9. Strengthen capacity of states to employ more streamlined and integrated approaches to delivering key public work supports (such as health coverage, nutrition benefits, and child care subsidies) so low-income working families can stabilize their lives and advance their career
  10. Rebuild unemployment insurance and cash assistance to ensure a strong safety net that supports poor and low-income children, families, and individuals when they need it.

Kali Grant and Indivar Dutta-Gupta: Ten Ways to Fight Income Inequality

  1. Correct political imbalances—strengthen and protect the Voting Rights Act, level the playing field for political contributions, and limit the influence of corporate lobbyists.
  2. Ensure that the wealthiest people and profitable corporations that benefit the most from our political and economic system contribute their fair share: reform “upside-down” tax expenditures (spending through the tax code that disproportionately benefits those with higher incomes), limit corporate welfare, and enact a robust inheritance tax.
  3. Amplify workers’ bargaining power by increasing fines for illegal anti-union behavior, encouraging minority unions, and reversing state laws that undermine unions and prevent them from collecting dues for benefits they provide workers at unionized workplaces.
  4. Update labor standards—raise the national minimum wage to $12 and index it to wage growth, require fair scheduling for workers, target employee-contractor misclassification and wage theft, and enact the Paycheck Fairness Act.
  5. Modernize the safety net—update Unemployment Insurance to reflect the changing nature of work; increase Social Security benefits and raise the cap on income subject to taxes; expand Medicaid in every state; and address flaws in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to refocus it on employment and child well-being outcomes.
  6. Provide families tools to manage their many responsibilities—provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, universal early learning and care, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a child allowance, and comprehensive family planning services.
  7. Expand opportunities for current and future workers—invest in infrastructure and other nationally needed jobs; enact income-based loan repayment to increase higher education accessibility and affordability; and pursue full employment.
  8. Increase affordable housing and bolster consumer financial protection rules—promote fair and accessible banking, savings, and other financial vehicles and services for those excluded or abused by the current system.
  9. Attack racial and other discrimination across the board and enact comprehensive immigration reform, normalizing the status of more children and workers to increase their educational and work opportunities.
  10. Reduce the over-incarceration and over-criminalization by every level of government that restricts millions of Americans’ ability to support themselves and their families—especially among communities of color and high poverty areas.

Erica Williams: What States Can Do to Address Inequality

  1. Make state tax systems less regressive. State tax systems tend to ask the most from those with the least because they rely heavily on sales taxes and user fees, which hit low-income households especially hard. States can move their tax systems in a more progressive direction by strengthening their income taxes, adopting state earned income tax credits (or other low-income tax credits) to boost after-tax incomes at the bottom, and rejecting tax cuts that disproportionately benefit higher-income families and profitable corporations.
  2. Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
  3. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. States can raise wages for workers at the bottom of the pay scale by enacting a higher state minimum wage and indexing it so that it keeps up with rising living costs.
  4. Protect workers’ rights. States can raise wages by protecting workers’ right to bargain collectively and by strengthening and enforcing laws and regulations to prevent abusive employer practices that deprive workers of wages they are legally owed.
  5. Improve unemployment insurance.Unemployment Insurance helps workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own to avoid falling into poverty and to stay connected to the labor market. States that have cut benefits should restore those cuts; others should build on recent efforts to fix outmoded rules that bar many workers from accessing benefits.
  6. Establish subsidized employment programs for low-income parents and youth that provide temporary jobs of last resort (mostly in the private sector), such as those many states created in 2009 and 2010 through the TANF block grant.  These programs proved popular with participating businesses, families, and state officials of both parties.
  7. Improve the safety net. States can streamline the process for enrolling in child care assistance and other work supports. They also can boost the prospects of poor children by raising the amount of temporary cash assistance available to the neediest families, improving access to food stamps, and helping low-income families afford to rent a home in neighborhoods near good jobs.
  8. Spend less on prisons, more on schools.In recent decades, states imposed extremely harsh corrections policies that greatly increased both the number of prisoners and their average sentence, at great cost to state budgets.  By making these policies more rational, states could shift funding from prison to more productive investments, without harming public safety.
  9. Improve school funding formulas.  K-12 schools in low-income neighborhoods are often poorly funded because the local property tax base is so weak.  As a result, children from these neighborhoods begin their education without the resources and supports they need to succeed.  States can help by adopting funding formulas that give extra support to low-income districts.  Many state funding formulas don’t push back very much against these inequities; some even worsen them.
  10. Expand early education.States can help families work and kids learn by investing in quality, affordable early care and education programs, as well as after-school programs.

Valerie Wilson: Top 10 Ways to Address Income Inequality

(Author’s note: Given that the primary source of income for most Americans is the pay they receive from their jobs, wages seem like a logical place to start addressing inequality. These ideas are drawn from EPI’s Agenda to Raise America’s Pay.)

  1. Raise the minimum wage: Raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would benefit about a third of the workforce directly and indirectly.
  2. Update overtime rules: Moving the overtime threshold to the value it held in 1975—roughly $51,000 today—would provide overtime protections to 6.1 million workers and provide those workers with higher pay.
  3. Strengthen and protect workers: Strengthen collective bargaining rights to help give workers the leverage they need to bargain for better wages and benefits and to set high labor standards for all workers, and support strong enforcement of labor standards to protect workers.
  4. Regularize undocumented workers to lift not only their wages but also the wages of all workers in the same fields of work.
  5. Provide earned sick leave and paid family leave, which would not only raise workers’ pay but also give them more economic security.
  6. End discriminatory practices that contribute to race and gender inequalities through consistently strong enforcement of antidiscrimination laws in the hiring, promotion, and pay of women and minority workers.
  7. Prioritize very low rates of unemployment when making monetary policy: Policymakers should not seek to slow the economy until growth of nominal wages is running comfortably above 3.5 percent.
  8. Create jobs through targeted employment programs and public investments in infrastructure.
  9. Reduce our trade deficit by stopping destructive currency manipulation.
  10. Use the tax code to restrain top 1 percent incomes.




Ending ‘Debtors Prisons’ for Arkansas Renters

While it may not sound like something that should be legal in modern-day America, being arrested for failing to pay rent on time is a reality for some Arkansans, thanks to a state law – known as the criminal eviction statute – that has been on the books since the early 1900s. Under this law, renters can face a criminal conviction and up to 90 days in jail for being one day late on their rent.

As a civil legal aid advocate for people living in poverty in Arkansas, I’ve seen firsthand how this policy represents the criminalization of poverty at its worst. For example, one couple was charged under the law when they fell behind on their $585 monthly rent payment and didn’t move out quickly enough. Another woman was sentenced to probation even though she had been in the hospital after suffering a stroke when she was served an eviction notice.

By criminalizing conduct that all other states treat as a private breach of contract, Arkansas puts struggling citizens in jeopardy of getting stuck in financial dire straits. What’s more, saddling renters with criminal records affects their ability to keep their job (or find a new one) and therefore makes them less able to afford rent. It also worsens their chance of securing a new home, which leads to homelessness for a lot of families.

When low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves

To make matters worse, when low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves. In fact, the vast majority of the approximately 2,000 failure-to-vacate cases filed each year under the criminal eviction statute involves tenants, mostly women and children, who do not have legal representation. But, in a completely lopsided state of affairs, landlords seeking to evict a tenant always have an attorney, because the court appoints a prosecutor at the taxpayers’ expense.

Thankfully, civil legal aid advocates have seen some recent success in the effort to end this terrible policy . Artoria Smith recently found herself in an eviction dispute over back rent. She was late on her rent after the landlord demanded she pay an additional $300 to cover the cost of repairing her floor. The floor was damaged because Ms. Smith had fallen through after it rotted out.

Her story could have ended like most do: with a move, a conviction, and a fine. However, she was fortunate enough to qualify for civil legal aid at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, one of Arkansas’s two nonprofit legal aid organizations.

Smith’s attorneys argued that the failure-to-vacate statute was unconstitutional, stating that it was a violation of due process and equal protection, unconstitutionally chilled her right to a trial, violated state and federal prohibitions against debtors prisons, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge agreed, striking down the law in its entirety in Arkansas’s largest county, which has historically prosecuted about 25% of all criminal eviction cases in the state. This case represents a major step forward for the tenants of Arkansas. Cases in two other judicial districts in the state have recently followed suit.

Unfortunately, Arkansas lawmakers have been reluctant to consider any changes to the state’s landlord-tenant laws. In 2015, two bills that would have strengthened renters’ rights were voted down in committee in the Arkansas House. HB1814 would have repealed the criminal eviction statute and HB1486 would have enacted a very basic “implied warranty of habitability,” which would have required landlords to make residential rental properties livable for tenants. Such a warranty certainly would have helped Ms. Smith.

The Arkansas legislature will have a chance to revisit the need for more balanced landlord-tenant laws when it meets again in 2017. Until then, Arkansas legal aid attorneys will be working to achieve that balance one renter at a time.



New Ruling Highlights Why We Need the REDEEM Act

On May 21, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson ordered the expungement of the 13-year-old federal fraud conviction of “Jane Doe,” a Brooklyn home health aide. His decision received national attention for being unprecedented in the federal courts, which have no explicit authority conferred on them by Congress to expunge or seal federal criminal cases. Encouraging though it is, Judge Gleeson’s decision is most important for its illustration of the need for Congress to enact such a sealing remedy, as provided for in the bipartisan REDEEM Act (S. 675).

As my colleague Rebecca Vallas and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, having a criminal record is a major cause of poverty, and cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with it. The states have recognized the power of this policy alternative, with 23 states having expanded their record-clearing laws between 2009 and 2014, as documented by the Vera Institute.

In contrast, there is virtually no statutory authority to clear records of federal court cases. Indeed, even though nearly every state permits arrests not leading to conviction to be cleared, there is no similar authority for federal cases. Even a person who is acquitted in a federal court has no explicit right to seal that case.

Jane Doe was desperate enough that she forged ahead with an expungement petition, even though it was the longest of long-shots. She is a Haitian immigrant who in 1997 was struggling to raise four children on a net monthly income from her home health aide job that was exceeded by her monthly rent alone. She participated in a staged accident as part of an automobile insurance fraud scheme which, had it been successful, would have paid her $2,500. Instead, she was found guilty of a federal charge of insurance fraud. She was sentenced to five years of probation, ten months of home detention, and a restitution order of $46,701 (toward which she faithfully paid $25 monthly, no matter how bad her financial position in later years). But in the eight years since her probation ended in 2007, Jane was fired from home health care jobs a half-dozen times after her background check. As a result, she has been unemployed most of the time.

In considering Ms. Doe’s petition, Judge Gleeson had to determine whether he had the authority to expunge a federal criminal case. In the absence of a federal law explicitly permitting expungement, he looked at whether federal courts have “ancillary jurisdiction” for that purpose. He concluded that of the nation’s twelve federal circuit courts of appeal, five may permit expungement, while five explicitly do not (with apparently no ruling in the other two). Even though he serves in one of the five circuits that may permit such a ruling, Judge Gleeson acknowledged that he was “acutely aware that ‘courts have rarely granted motions to expunge arrest records, let alone conviction records.’”

Judge Gleeson found “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement of Jane Doe’s case. The factors he pointed to for justification of his ruling included Jane’s otherwise clean record, the 17 years since the offense, the “dramatic” adverse impact on her ability to work, and her role as a minor participant in a nonviolent case.

But here’s the thing: While the impact of the federal conviction on Jane might be “extreme,” it is not unusual in the least. At the Philadelphia legal aid program where I work, we received more than 900 new requests for help last year alone by people whose criminal records were preventing them from working. A great many of these people also had old, nonviolent cases that cost them jobs and leave their families in poverty.

For instance, consider my following clients who have been involved in federal cases:

    • JT was convicted of sale of heroin in 1985, after a bad decision to try to sell drugs to provide for her children quickly ended when she sold to an undercover cop. She learned her lesson, served five years’ probation, and hasn’t been arrested since. Now 57, JT has been prevented from working with troubled children and from serving as a home care worker because of the 30-year-old case.
    • AA also was convicted of a single drug case in 1994. She too served five years’ probation and has avoided trouble ever since. She too has been threatened with loss of employment in a school because of her 20-year-old conviction.
    • In 1997, PV was convicted by a federal jury of harboring and concealing a person from arrest (she was accused of not turning over her common law husband to police). The judge overturned the verdict after the trial and acquitted her. But her case also remains available to the public and adds to her difficulties in getting work at age 64, despite 23 years in a very responsible position in a university until she was laid off.

Because the circuit court in Philadelphia has ruled that our judges have no authority to expunge criminal cases, I cannot file an expungement petition for these three women.

Fortunately, the REDEEM Act is a vehicle for change. Introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Corey Booker (D-NY), it would permit all three of my clients – and hundreds of thousands more – to seek to seal their records. The bill is not perfect. It limits sealing to nonviolent cases, including nonviolent arrests. All cases that have not resulted in conviction should be permitted to be sealed. But enactment of the REDEEM Act would be a very important step forward.

Judge Gleeson concluded, “[Jane Doe’s] case highlights the need to take a fresh look at policies that shut people out from the social, economic and educational opportunities they desperately need in order to reenter society successfully.” Amen to that. Let’s pass the REDEEM Act and provide the federal expungement remedy that is so desperately needed by people across the country like Jane Doe.